Saturday, February 23, 2008

G2000 v. 2000: Is 20 Million Yuan Enough for Trademark Infringement?

I thought I have blogged about almost everything interesting on Chinese Trademark Law. But, I was wrong. In the case of G2000 v. 2000, the Hangzhou Intermediate People’s Court showed Chinese Trademark Law is still more interesting than the Leifeng Pagoda in Hangzhou, and the Hong Kong star sex scandal.

(Disclaimer: After a reasonable search, I have not been able to locate the actual opinion of the Court. The content of this post is based on multiple news sources, here and here. Surprisingly, the Hangzhou Intermediate Court does not have a website while other intermediate courts of lesser importance in Zhejiang Province have.)

First, this is a somewhat complicated trademark infringement case involving one plaintiff and multiple defendants. And the defendants have appealed the decision to the Zhejiang Higher People’s Court; therefore, the outcome of the case as laid down below could change, depending upon the Court’s prospective decision.

The Parties:
Plaintiff is an individual, Mr. Zhao Hua, in the business of manufacturing and selling socks, ties, and scarves. He acquired by assignment and still owns the trademark “2000” (Registration # 1094814), which was first registered by the original owner in 1997. And it was registered for Class 25 Goods (Clothing, footwear, headgear), including the following categories: socks, gloves, scarves, ties, belts, sashes, and veils.

Defendant is G2000 (纵横二千集团), a Hong Kong company, in the fashion/clothing business with corporate and franchised units scattered in many Asian countries/regions. It manufactures and sells its full lines of products including casual, formal and informal clothing and accessories for men and women. In addition, it also franchises its business concepts internationally.

In 1992, Defendant registered the “G2000” mark in China for use covering clothing, shoes and headwear. (carefully note the different types of goods registered for as compared to those registered for by the Plaintiff under its 2000 mark.)

In 1997, Defendant registered the same G2000 mark for handbags, shopping bags, and straps (手袋、购物袋、背带等).

In 2002, Defendant registered the G2 mark for clothing, neckties, socks, scarves, belts, etc. (服装、领带、袜、围巾、腰带等)

In May 2002, Defendant filed an action in the China Trademark Office to cancel plaintiff’s trademark (2000), then it unsuccessfully appealed to the China Trademark Review and Adjudication Board (the “TRAB”). Finally, it brought an administrative action pursuant to Article 33 of Chinese Trademark Law 2001 in the Beijing First Intermediate People’s Court, challenging the TRAB’s decision, but to no avail. On final appeal in 2005, the Beijing Higher People’s Court affirmed the administrative decision, holding that Plaintiff’s mark is valid for the types of goods so registered under Nice 25 Class.

Co-defendants are Shanghai Heyuan Clothing, Ltd. (上海和缘服装有限公司) and Guangzhou Qianying Clothing, Ltd. (广州千盈服装有限公司), and Zhejiang Yintai Department Store, Ltd. (浙江银泰百货有限公司), all of which are Defendant’s franchisees in China (or they might be area developers, or sub-franchisors. The exact legal relationship between co-defendants and the defendant is not clear to me.).

Brief Facts:

Facts of this legal saga lasting more than eight years are complicated. Back in 2000, Plaintiff sent a demand letter (cease & desist letter) to Defendant and co-defendant Shanghai Heyuan Clothing, Ltd., alleging trademark infringement with respect to the use of G2000 in connection with their sale of socks, gloves, ties and scarves. Between 2000 and 2006, Plaintiff also sought redress by filing multiple complaints with local Administration Industry and Commerce (“AIC”) in Beijing, Guangzhou, and other cities, but apparently achieved little (Doesn’t this make you think twice about the efficacy of AICs?). And to gather evidence, in the span of 10 months from May 2005 to March 2006, Plaintiff purchased allegedly infringing goods at various stores and locations sold by Defendant’s/co-defendants’ G2000 specialty units in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Ningbo, and other places.

Plaintiff, I assume, filed this action soon after the Beijing Higher People’s Court handed down its decision against G2000 in 2005. The timing was pretty good on the part of the Plaintiff since the Beijing Court’s decision eliminated some uncertainty as to the validity of his trademark rights in 2000 for the goods registered for.

Additionally, it is important to note that Defendant operates a widespread network of company-owned and franchised units (reportedly 436 units in China), selling goods under the G2000 trademark. Of course, “goods” as referred to include those types that Plaintiff was seeking for relief.


Whether Defendants’ use of the G2000 trademark for ties, socks, belts, and scarves (领带、袜子、腰带、围巾) caused confusion with Plaintiff’s goods bearing the 2000 mark among consumers?

The Court held that Defendants infringed on Plaintiff’s rights, but for lack of access, no detailed analysis is available (Chinese courts, as do many courts in civil law jurisdictions, do not provide detailed analysis for their decisions, unlike their counterparts in common law jurisdictions. Exceptions, like the Starbucks v. Shanghai Copycat, do exist.).

My Thoughts & Reactions:

The court’s award of damages in this case is intriguing. Plaintiff pleaded for damages totaling 20,000,000 Yuan (that is right, 20 million). And the Court ordered the Defendants to turn over the figures for total sales, profits, etc. for the goods complained of in the relevant period of time, but the Defendant failed to do so. Generally, Chinese courts award damages to a plaintiff in an IP infringement case to the extent of a defendant’s illegal profits as proven, rather than losses sustained by the plaintiff. See Kate C. Hunter, Here There Be Pirates: How China is Meeting Its IP Enforcement Obligations Under TRIPS, 8 San Diego Int’l L. J. 523, 547. In addition, if the illegal profits or plaintiff’s losses cannot be accurately ascertained, the statutory maximum award of damages is 500,000 Yuan. See Chinese Trademark Law, Art. 56. Therefore, in an act rarely seen in Chinese courts, the Court awarded a whopping 20 million Yuan to the Plaintiff. Further, given the intertwined relationships among the Defendants, the Court held them jointly and severally liable. (for more discussion on awarding damages, please visit China Law Blog's post here.)

Obtaining sufficient damages in IP infringement cases is of paramount importance, if not the paramount one. After all, without proper compensation, a plaintiff’s glorious victory in the people’s courts can only be a “feel-good” occurrence, without much substance. (However, that is not to say that winning is not important.) Perspective and purpose affect one’s reactions to a major score in the courts. If a plaintiff’s main goal is to make a statement to actual and prospective infringers, and to enjoin current infringements, a win deserves much celebration. However, if a plaintiff’s main goal is to seek redress and obtain monetary and equitable relief, a win unsupported with lost profits waters down sweetness.

On appeal, the bone of contention, as I expect, would be that award of 20 million in damages to plaintiff. Of course, Defendants will try to set aside that amount, citing that it exceeds the statutory maximum; whereas, the plaintiff might argue that the 20 million award is appropriate given the scope and extent of violations, in addition to their failure to turn over documents within their control to ascertain the exact amount of damages.

Insofar as infringement is considered, it is a classic example of reverse confusion issue. According to Joel R. Feldman,

[i]n reverse confusion cases, a junior user (defendant) adopts a mark already in use by the senior user (plaintiff). However, the junior user dwarfs the senior user through advertising and other expenditures used to promote the mark. While the senior user has a “property” interest in protecting the mark, the public may benefit more from the junior user’s adoption of the mark because they only identify the mark with the junior user and are not confused by the dual uses of the mark.
Like any trademark infringement case, the key for Plaintiff is to establish confusion. Here, the fact is that the Defendant registered the G2000 before Plaintiff (his predecessor) registered the “2000” mark, but Defendant’s mistake was not to register its mark to cover more types of goods, specifically ties, socks, belts, and scarves. Instead, it only registered it for clothing, shoes and headwear. It is very easy to see what happened here. As Defendants’ business grew and expanded in China, it wanted to use the mark for ties, socks, belts and so forth, but found out, albeit regrettably, that it was too late to register. However, it was too lucrative not to go ahead with the expansion into more products with the coveted and profitable “G2000” mark. The fact it filed an objection/cancellation action with the Trademark Office speaks for itself. Although one might contend that plaintiff might have had ulterior motives when it registered the “2000” for the categories of goods under Class 25, plaintiff (or its predecessor) did so within the bounds of the Chinese Trademark Law at that time. And it did so because Defendant had failed to obtain trademark rights large and extensive enough to exclude others like the plaintiff from using the “2000 ” mark for any reason. And it did so, arguably, on account of Defendant’s failure to develop a comprehensive IP strategy before G2000 became highly profitable.

On the topic of a comprehensive IP strategy, G2000, I think, failed miserably. In addition to what I discussed above, it relied too heavily on the legal approach for its overall IP enforcement/strategy. Once its opposition/cancellation action failed through the entire legal process, it should not have pretended that “2000” problem does not exist. (This is simply for the sake of argument since I am assuming that Defendants did not attempt to buy out Plaintiff.) Should it have employed other means and strategies to make this headache go away? Should it have reached some kind of settlement agreement with respect to damages, or the use of the “2000” / “G2000” mark?

I think it should have done something more proactive to avoid a much, much bigger problem that is waiting for G2000. And if the appeal gets affirmed, or vacated on the issue of damages (assuming that is the only issue on appeal), the legal standing of Defendant’s “G2000” mark is still in doubt with respect to the categories of goods in question, thus jeopardizing its entire franchise system in China.

Next post will discuss the impact of this case on G2000’s franchise system.

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